The first body was found June 21, 2017, amid the garbage, broken glass and booze bottles that litter the alley behind the many dilapidated vacant houses near North Main Street on West Norman Avenue in Dayton.
Since then, four more women’s bodies have been found within a mile’s radius, most of them just blocks apart.
Police don’t know if the deaths are connected, but they know this: All of the women came from somewhere else only to wind up dead in the yards or alleyways of neighborhoods so hollowed out by crime and foreclosures that three of the women’s bodies lay undiscovered long enough to be partly eaten by animals.
At least three of the deaths were homicides; drugs played some role in all of them.
“Is this a predator? Is this a coincidence? Coming from other areas to an area of drug use, bad things are going to happen if you go there long enough,” Montgomery County Coroner Dr. Kent Harshbarger said. “Is it a coincidence that they all come from different areas and wind up near each other, all with drugs on board? All of them are potentially foul play.”
Just a few miles away in downtown Dayton, a housing boom is leading to the construction of new restaurants, bars, and businesses as the urban core undergoes a transformation. But a different transformation is underway in the once solidly middle class neighborhoods of Santa Clara and North Riverdale, where four of the bodies were found.
Some blocks have nearly as many vacant, decrepit homes as ones that are occupied. Drug dealers and prostitutes openly ply their trades in what neighborhood activist Lynn LaMance calls a “red-light district.”
“Due to the area being very vacant there simply aren’t eyes to see everything. And when you look around it looks as if no one cares,” LaMance said. “I just wish the area was not a dumping ground for junk tires or women.”
Jasmine Wadsworth of Huber Heights, the first victim, came to party in the alley just off North Main and was seen by a witness smoking crack cocaine just 29 minutes before she was shot six times.
Police have made no arrests in the killing of the 39-year-old mother of three.
The shooting deaths of Krystal Garcia, 30, of Dayton, and Amanda Fella, 34, of Miamisburg, are also unsolved.
Fella, who leaves behind two sons, was found July 27 in an alley beside an apartment building at 316 Superior Ave., a bullet wound in her head. The location is about a mile from where the other women were found.
Garcia was discovered Sept. 25, an estimated 13 days after she died. She was shot once in the head and dumped in the backyard of a vacant house at 22 W. Hudson Ave.
Both Fella and Garcia had cocaine in their systems, according to the coroner.
The nude body of Deanna Prendergast, 39, of Kettering, was found Sept. 15 under a discarded door in the back yard of a vacant duplex at 15-17 E. Hudson Avenue. That address is just up the street from where Garcia was found 10 days later.
Harshbarger said Prendergast, the mother of three children, had fentanyl in her body and signs of strangulation but was too decomposed to determine a cause of death.
He believes Prendergast died Sept. 11, a day before he estimates Garcia died.
Rachael Prendergast of Enon, Deanna’s younger sister, doesn’t believe she died from an overdose.
“We definitely think she was murdered. One-hundred percent,” said Prendergast, 33. “Yes, she was part of the drug problem in Dayton. But we know the human being she was before that. We want some sort of justice done.”
The cause of death for the fifth woman, Kathleen Driscoll, 31, of Dayton, was an overdose, Harshbarger said.
Driscoll had fentynal, morphine, cocaine and methamphetamine in her body and a history of arrests and convictions for drugs, soliciting and robbery. She was found Jan. 12 of this year, wrapped in blue fabric, bound in black tape and dumped in the bushes of a vacant lot at 39 Ernst Ave. The location is just three blocks from where Prendergast was found.
“You can’t wrap yourself up like that,” said Jordan Gonzalez, whose wife discovered Driscoll’s body in the vacant lot next to their home. “You get these thoughts going through your head: serial killer, murderer. I know what kind of neighborhood we live in.”
‘I’m scared for my kids’
Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, whose R.A.N.G.E. drug task force is active in the area, believes the deaths of the women are all tied into the drug trade and prostitution that occur in that area along North Main Street. On Feb. 14, the task force raided 26 W. Hudson, next door to where Garcia was found, and 72 W. Hudson, which is just down the block.
Crack and powder cocaine, fentanyl, marijuana and U.S. currency were confiscated and seven people arrested.
Plummer said “key players” have been identified and authorities from multiple agencies are working to bring them down. On Friday he said two more R.A.N.G.E. raids related to the drug trade on Main Street were conducted on Riverside and Old Riverside Drives in Dayton.
“So it’s all part of this one group of people on Main Street, and as soon as we get that group taken out, things will get better on Main Street,” Plummer said.
Gonzalez isn’t going to wait for that to happen. He said his family will move when their lease is up this spring.
“I’m scared for my kids,” Gonzalez said. “I’m scared for my wife.”
The ravaged Santa Clara and North Riverdale neighborhoods were the region’s ground zero when the home foreclosure bomb exploded across the United States in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession.
Even before the recession the neighborhoods along North Main Street were hard hit as residents moved out and were replaced by absentee landlords and vacant houses people couldn’t sell. Drugs — first crack cocaine and then opioids — brought in a flood of drug dealers and crime, said Gloria White, president of the Santa Clara Neighborhood Association.
A 22-year-resident of West Hudson Avenue, White said she started noticing the down cycle several years ago when drug dealers began parading pitbulls down the sidewalk and delivery trucks started pulling up to vacant houses to make deliveries to the drug dealers squatting there.
“(Gangs) would hang those tennis shoes up on the telephone poles and electric wires and claim their territory,” said White. “The tennis shoes still go up.”
For these neighborhoods the foreclosure crisis was “the all-time blow,” White said.
There are currently 70 abandoned, tax-delinquent houses on Norman and Hudson avenues alone, according to data provided by the Montgomery County Auditor. The overdue tax bills on the houses total nearly $1.2 million — more than half of the $2 million assessed market value on those homes. That makes redevelopment a tough sell: Someone would have to pay the past due taxes, purchase the houses and then spend thousands renovating them in a neighborhood clearly on the decline.
This list includes the properties where Prendergast and Garcia were found, as well as the vacant 24 W. Norman Ave. house adjacent to where Wadsworth was found in the alley. The owner of the vacant lot where Driscoll was found is more than $46,000 in arrears on taxes, county records show.
All but one of the four owners are limited liability companies; none could be reached for comment.
‘Come do your bad crap here’
Neighborhood activists say the absentee, tax-delinquent property owners and the crime those vacant properties attract are the crux of the problem along North Main Street.
“It’s like we hang a sign out that says, ‘Come do your bad crap here,” said Rev. Darryl Fairchild, a longtime community leader who is running for city commission. “People come into Dayton to do their bad crap because they know it’s safe to do it here, that they can get away with it.”
Fairchild believes the city lacks a plan for North Main Street and hasn’t been strategic enough in using its federal funding for demolition.
“It looks like a natural disaster over there,” Fairchild said. He advocates clearing some of the worst streets completely and helping homeowners move elsewhere.
Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein said the city is working on a plan to address the problems in the neighborhoods along North Main Street, and said it should be ready by mid-year. Finding funding to pay for improvements will be a challenge, however.
“There are certainly areas across the city that are distressed,” Dickstein said. “I would say it is one of the worst areas.”
She said the city had no control over the national foreclosure crisis but has used demolition funds to take down the worst structures first, including larger vacant apartment buildings in the North Main area. She said 220 structures have been demolished at a cost of nearly $4 million in five neighborhoods along North Main Street.
Across the city, Dayton has spent about $27 million over six years demolishing vacant or abandoned properties. The city also mows grass and cleans up trash, Dickstein said.
She said it would be easier to hold the property owners responsible if state legislators would reform laws that shield limited liability companies. Under Ohio law, the owners of LLCs do not have to reveal their names on public documents, making it difficult to track them down if their properties fall into disrepair.
Curtis M. Watson, who until October headed the neighborhoods’ FROC Priority Board, said the city is caught in a “Catch-22” of increased need in the face of lost revenues as the people move out and don’t pay taxes.
“They’re doing what they can given the budget and the manpower that they have,” Watson said.
White, the Santa Clara Neighborhood Association president, wants the city to do more to battle crime, tear down vacant houses and board up those that remain. But she says those who live in the neighborhood also need to do their part by cleaning up their properties and reporting criminal activity when it is happening.
“It takes people to stand up and say, ‘You will not do this,’” she said. “I’m not frightened. They’re not running me off.”
She applies for grants to beautify the neighborhood and gets help from county jail prisoners to clean up the streets. Her frustration: “Before we can get in our trucks and cars to go home, somebody’s drove down the street and thrown chicken boxes on us. That’s just to let us know they don’t want change.”
LeMance and Victoria McNeal, president of the Riverdale Neighborhood Association, are comrades in arms who have teamed up in an effort to help turn things around.
“I saw the vacancy and I saw the blight,” said LaMance, who lives in the Five Oaks neighborhood. “I kept looking for someone to do something. I looked around at the city, then I looked around at my neighborhood association. And I didn’t see anybody doing anything. So I said, ‘I can do these things.’”
LaMance and McNeal regularly patrol the alleyways along Norman, Hudson and other streets jutting off of North Main. They pick up trash, call the city about vacant houses that need to be boarded up, report signs of crime, paint over graffiti, trim back bushes and talk to the women walking the streets about getting help for their addictions.
They’re not afraid to peer into a trash-filled abandoned garage, but sometimes they wonder what they might find.
“It’s agonizing and gut-wrenching that this is happening,” McNeal said. “I don’t know if they’ll ever find who murdered these women.”
‘Nobody wants to be a prostitute’
Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said it is unusual to have three homicides in such close proximity. He said all five cases are open investigations and his detectives are not giving up on any of them.
“We have people we still want to try to locate and interview,” Biehl said. “Homicide investigations are complex cases. Particularly in the absence of a witness, they become very challenging, potentially, to solve.”
Biehl said the city has assigned more uniformed officers in the North Main Street area and is deploying other resources, including technology, as additional safety measures.
Plummer said women end up working the streets because they are exploited by drug dealers and human traffickers. He said he feels sorry for them.
“Nobody wants to be a prostitute,” Plummer said. “We have these middle-aged guys taking advantage of these young ladies through this addiction process. They are beating them (and) there are rumors of being ‘hot-shot.’ That’s where they fill you up with heroin and fentanyl and kill you.”
LaMance said the women she sees during her walks through the neighborhood know the danger they are in.
“The women thank me,” she said, “but they are still out here and so it’s not clear-thinking or common sense that’s guiding them. It’s clearly other things.”
Other stories by Lynn Hulsey